Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Korean Indictments in Hwang-gate; a closer look at the Pittsburgh connection

For those who missed the irony, the indictments of Hwang Woo-Suk and five colleagues happened on May 12, 2006, exactly one year after the journal Science accepted the patient-specific cell line paper (308 Science 1777) on May 12, 2005.

The Korean prosecutors did not charge anyone in connection with the publication of false information. It's not against the law to publish false scientific results in a high impact journal, although yelling "fire" in a crowded theater might get one in trouble if there is no fire. One interesting aspect is that the journal Science did not find the false representation of (Korean) law compliance to merit retraction of the 2005 paper, even when that false representation was intentional. Apparently, it's also all right to publish results that were obtained illegally.

However, there is something else that comes out in the indictments. Hwang was not the only Korean party engaged in falsification; his junior researcher Kim Sun Jong was misrepresenting data, INDEPENDENTLY of Hwang. In light of Kim's later connection to the University of Pittsburgh, and in light of the MBC-TV interview with Kim in Pittsburgh in October 2005, some of the motivations and actions of the University of Pittsburgh people involved with Hwang should be re-evaluated.

The Pittsbugh Tribune-Review reported on the indictments on May 12, and stated:

A Pitt investigative panel appointed by medical school dean Dr. Arthur Levine concluded in February that Schatten "likely did not intentionally falsify or fabricate experimental data, and that there is no evidence that he was aware of the misconduct reported to have occurred in Dr. Hwang's group in Korea."

A timeline is helpful with the issues:

October 20, 2005

MBC-TV producers visit Kim Song-jong and insist Hwang's research is all fake and his two papers published by Science will be canceled. They even said Hwang will be arrested, according to Kim in a later report in the Korea Times. The discussion between MBC and Kim is in Pittsburgh, where Kim is working in the lab of Gerald Schatten. Kim contended MBC duped him and his two Korean colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh into accepting the interview, believing the TV network was making a documentary.

[Note at the end of this timeline, May 12, 2006, one has an entry concerning Kim: Prosecutors May 12, 2006 confirmed Hwang's initial claims that one of his junior researchers, Kim Sun Jong, falsified results of the 2004 and 2005 studies to obtain exchange fellowships in the U.S.]

November 10, 2005

According to Science, Gerald Schatten, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the May 2005 Science paper, alerts them to Korean press reports alleging that researcher Sun Il Roh has illegally traded ova. Schatten reassures Science that "none of the oocytes used in Professor Hwang's '04 or '05 Science papers were obtained from reimbursed women donors."

(from the timeline of the journal Nature)

November 12, 2005

Gerald Schatten, Hwang's U.S. partner, says he has cut all ties with Hwang because of suspicions over unethical research conduct.

November 13, 2005

Is the Korean Stem Cell Revolution Imploding? Gerry Schatten Thinks So

For many months after Hwang's 2004 publication, rumors had spread in scientific circles that the eggs Hwang used to achieve that landmark result had been taken from a junior scientist in his lab.

Schatten said that Hwang had repeatedly denied the rumor and that he had believed Hwang until yesterday. "I now have information that leads me to believe he had misled me," Schatten said. "My trust has been shaken. I am sick at heart. I am not going to be able to collaborate with Woo Suk."

From bioethics blog

November 19, 2005

US Law Firms Offer Justification for Hwang Eggs Issue

(post deleted from -

November 22, 2005

MBC airs the first part of a program about Hwang which reveals the alleged ovum donations by his junior researchers.

November 23, 2005 (Forbes)

SEOUL (AFX) - South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-Suk has resigned after admitting that two junior researchers in his team had donated eggs and that other women had received money for eggs used in his landmark research on human embryos.

'I feel so sorry to speak about such shameful and miserable things to you people,' he said in his first public comments on a scandal that has been brewing for months concerning the origin of ova used in his research. 'I again sincerely apologize for having caused concern at home and abroad.'

Hwang said that he was resigning all his official posts including the chairmanship of a new research body, the World Stem Cell Hub, established last month to produce stem cell lines here.

'As of today I am resigning from the chairmanship of the World Stem Cell Hub and all other official responsibilities I held at government and social organizations,' he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

'This is my way of seeking repentance.'

The South Korean government said earlier that Hwang had done no wrong despite receiving ova from junior researchers and other women who received payments.

'There were no breaches of legal or ethical standards in the course of obtaining human eggs for the research,' a spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Welfare said.

From bioethics blog,

November 24, 2005

Admission of payments for eggs

Hwang admits that his stem-cell research used eggs from paid donors and junior members of his team. He resigns from his official positions, saying he will continue his research.

(Nature timeline)

December 15, 2005 -

Roh Sung-il, chief of MizMedi Hospital, a fertility clinic in Seoul that provided ova and assisted Hwang's research, holds a press conference to declare that Hwang's stem cells never existed. MBC broadcasts the last of its series on suspicions about Hwang. The program, which had initiated questions on Hwang's achievements, had been put on hold for weeks because of fierce public support of the scientist.
December 16, 2005 -
Hwang holds a press conference to refute Roh's claim, saying someone may have swapped his stem cells with others, vaguely suggesting it was his junior researcher Kim Sun-jong.

December 25, 2005

And John Robertson wrote persuasively in this blog, in commenting on what he saw as hyperventilation about the egg donation problem in Hwang's lab, that, "Now that [Hwang] has done his public mea culpa I say the time is to forgive him and let him get back to plying his considerable craft."

Lying is bad. But the tangled web in this matter is not the sort of thing one finds in the history of scientific misconduct. An entirely new kind of deception occurred here, one in which picking out the key player will be like playing Where's Waldo.

From bioethics blog

Feb. 3, 2006

John Robertson of The University of Texas writes:

The most important ethical lesson in the Hwang debacle is the spotlight now cast on egg donation practices. Human eggs are a precious commodity, and not easily obtained. Women must be willing to provide them. It is imperative that we not abuse or exploit women in the process. (…)Dr. Hwang broke every one of these rules. Laboratory workers were pressured to donate. Outsiders were recruited without a full account of the risks and benefits of the science or what they were getting into. There was no independent review. Dr. Hwang’s people also paid egg donors, which many persons think is undesirable or per se wrong. (…)
We pay women to donate eggs for infertility treatment, and on the whole the practice has been done reasonably well. Donation for ESC research is as important. As long as full information, coverage, etc. are there, there is no reason per se why some financial compensation is not provided.

From bioethics blog


May 12, 2006

Hwang is indicted, but prosecutors confirmed Hwang's initial claims that one of his junior researchers, Kim Sun Jong, falsified results of the 2004 and 2005 studies to obtain exchange fellowships in the U.S. Kim, a specialist in cultivating embryos, committed the wrongdoing "under psychological pressure" to accomplish his duties and
"out of desire to succeed as a scholar," Korean Prosecutor Lee said.


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